Tuesday, December 30, 2008

India Part 1

Saturday December 20th – My day started early. My flight left Madrid at 5:50 AM so I left my apartment at 2:15 in the morning. The night before I got about and hour and an half of sleep, so needless to say, I was destined to be jetlagged. In order to get to India, I flew KLM, a Dutch airline, to Amsterdam and then flew to Delhi. I was presently surprised by the food on KLM. Everything tasted pretty good and there were enough snacks to keep me happy. The airport in Amsterdam almost felt like a mall. There were large travel stores, chocolate and tobacco stores, in addition to book shops, clothing stores, restaurants. After a 7.5 hour flight from Amsterdam, I arrived in Delhi. After going through customs, I claimed my baggage and then was met by my tour guide and went to the hotel.

Currently, the Delhi airport is undergoing renovations. After leaving the airport, you have to walk about a quarter mile on uneven and sometimes unpaved road to where cars are parked. The second after leaving the airport facility it was quite clear that I was India. By this I mean, on the road (the main highway leaving the airport) there were people walking, people on bicycles, people riding in auto rickshaws (aka as Tutus in Thailand which are small three wheel motorized vehicles), motorcycles with 2 to 4 people riding on one, and regular cars. My driver was constantly weaving in and out of traffic to pass the slow moving bicycles and auto rickshaws that take up one of two lanes on the road.

When I arrived at my hotel, the gate to the hotel was closed and there was security outside. They checked under our car using a mirror to check for bombs, in the trunk of our car, and confirmed my name before letting us onto the premises on the hotel. When checking in, I had to provide my passport information as well. It is clear that many check in procedures have changed since the attacks in Mumbai and one can no longer walk into a hotel at whim. Guests would have to be announced and I think non-western looking guest would have a hard time getting through security.

December 21st
On Sunday morning, we met our tour guide and headed out for the day. First we went tot he Jama Masjid Mosque which is India’s largest mosque. The structure is made of red sand stone. Before going in any mosque, it is necessary to take off your shoes. The mosque was built to hold 900 worshippers with each person taking up one tile square. Muslim mosque are generally adorned with flower patterns because they don’t believe in creating idols which is in contrast to Hindu temples that are decorated with carvings of their gods which often are portrayed as having animal qualities. In order to call the Muslims to prayer, a blind man was employed to climb up the minaret. The reason for using a blind man was to protect everyone’s privacy because the mosque is located on a slight hill and the minaret goes up a couple of stories so they didn’t want anyone looking into people’s homes.

After visiting the mosque, my mom and I took a rickshaw ride through Old Delhi. The roads are very narrow. They were not built to accommodate cars and tour buses. While on the rickshaws, cars narrowly squeezed by us as we weaved our way throughout the traffic of bicycles, motor cycles, and pedestrians. The buildings are close together and there are a lot of stands selling goods on the sidewalk. The power lines hang low down between buildings and twice we saw water buffalo in the middle of the road. This experience really let me see the “real” India which cannot be experienced when riding in a private car. The sights, the sounds, and the smells were overwhelming. Throughout the entire ride, I don’t think my mom loosen her death grip on my leg and I just thought the experience was comical and something my friends and I would have done on term abroad.

candid shots taken during the rickshaw ride, trying to capture the pandemonium

at one point i looked up, and there was a cow blocking our way. i soon learned this quite typical to have cows in the middle of the road.

After the rickshaw ride, we went to see the sight where Gandhi’s ashes were scattered. Hindus believe in cremation so there is no cemetery or burial site. The spot where Gandhi’s ashes were scattered is in a public park. Our tour guide reminded us how incredible Gandhi’s accomplishments were. Much of what Gandhi preached can still be applied today, and the world would probably be a much saner and safer place if we all lived by the principle of non violence.

For lunch, I had my first Indian food in India. The food was really good and similar in taste and flavor to dishes I had in the States. In a way this surprised me because the Chinese food in China is a lot different from Chinese food in the US. One new drink that I enjoy is fresh lime soda in which they bring a glass with fresh lime juice, a smaller pot filled with sugar water, and a bottle of club soda and you add as much soda and sugar as you want. In India, nothing comes with ice because it is recommended for tourists to only drink bottled water. In the major cities, I think the water is safe but our bodies are not used to the bacteria however in rural areas I don’t think the water is even safe for locals.

In the afternoon, we went to see Hamayum’s Tomb. This building was built in honor of the Moghul Emperor Humayun by his widow. Many of the architectural principles seen in the Taj Mahal were first used in this building. Great emphasis is placed on symmetry, gardens, the use of arches, and fountains.

To end the day, we went to the Qutub Minar which is known as the 7th wonder of Hinduism. The tower is 234 feet tall. The site is a mix of Hindu and Muslim architecture because the tower commissioned by a Muslim emperor on the site of Hindu temple.

Random facts:
In India, people drive on the left hand side of the road. There are very few traffic lights rather there are some round abouts or triangle interchanges in the road which force you to bear left or right and merge with oncoming traffic.

The poverty is overwhelming and like nothing I have ever seen before. There are a lot of people begging on the streets and children will bang on the window of your car and motion to their mouths that they need something to eat. It is very hard to watch but we have decided to make a donation to a reputable charity when we return instead of giving money to the beggars. Many of the children on the street are part of organized begging units.

Delhi is actually divided into 7 towns. The first Delhi dates back to the 12th century. No one currently lives there. All that is left is the ruins from this period of time. New Delhi got its name around 1850 when the British decided to move the capital of India from Agra to Delhi and thus rechristened the city as New Delhi.

December 22, 2008

On Sunday, we took an early morning train from Delhi to Agra. The train was a high speed train that took two hours. The train station in Delhi is like nothing I have ever seen before. In order to make our way to the train, our car had to fight through a large crowd of beggars, bicyclers, vendors, motorcycles, and other vehicles. There are tons of people everywhere. I don’t think I have ever seen this extreme of poverty before. Children carrying babies would come up and knock on our car window making motions to their mouths indicating that they were hungry and needed food. Many slept outside the station or in the waiting area. They clearly did not have any food and it felt like we were invading their personal space. Porters carried large amounts of goods on their shoulders while others manipulated large hand rickshaws.

The train ride was pretty pleasant but at parts the amount of poverty was quite evident. From the train, I could see people doing a bucket shower, cooking their food in fire outside, and others going to the bathroom. Very few people had any privacy and their houses were merely brick shacks that were falling apart. In many villages, it was obvious that there was no plumbing, electricity, or sewage system. I was quite struck by the number of people I saw walking presumably to school or work and others going to the train station with many carrying large loads with them as they walked.

In Agra, we saw the Taj Mahal. We had a lovely guide who showed us around. She is one of eight female tour guides in Agra out of 1000. The Taj Mahal took 20 years to complete and 22,000 workers. The amount of intricate work is astounding. Not only is the architecture and engineering of the building impressive but so is the fine detail. The Taj was built as a mausoleum to honor the wife of one of the Persian maharajas. On her death bed, while giving birth to her 14th child, she requested that the king build a mausoleum to honor their true and everlasting and unique love. The Taj Mahal is supposed to represent heaven on earth which is why white marble was chosen. The white is supposed to remind people of cloud, peacefulness, and purity. The taj was well designed and engineered, even 350 years after it was built it has not been retrofitted or repaired. The four towers that surround the taj are built at a slight angle so that if anything ever goes wrong, such as an earthquake, they will fall away from the taj.

Luckily, on the day we went, the crowds were not that big. We were able to walk around freely and the weather was nice. I could not imagine doing this tour in the sweltering summer heat where it often reaches 120 degrees.

After visiting the taj we went to Agra fort. Once again, I was impressed by all the intricate detail. The building is made of red sandstone with many columns and screens carved into the stone. Many of the palaces in India do not have walls. Rather there is a series of pillars and from them they used to hang rugs. One interesting thing about the Agra fort is that at one point the builder of the Taj Mahal was under house arrest in there. His son had arrested him after taking the throne from his father because the father wanted to build a replica of the taj across the river in black as mausoleum for himself. However, his son who was now already king refused to spend another 20 years building and wasting tax payer money on a mausoleum for his father. As a result, the son had the former king arrested and placed under house arrest until he died. For this reason the taj mahal is not perfectly symmetrical. Everything on the grounds is symmetrical. There is a temple facing mecca and identical fake temple was built on the opposite side of the grounds in order to maintain the symmetry but the King’s tomb throws the symmetry of the taj off. His wife’s coffin is in the center of the taj mahal and he is buried slightly to the left instead of having the wife and husband’s tomb balanced with one on the left and one on the right.

monkeys outside the red fort, turning over a trash can looking for food

Friday, December 19, 2008


This past weekend I went to Paris. I had an amazing time despite the rain and wind. The main reason for my trip was to visit two of my good friends from college. Megan was in Paris for three weeks on a mini-term through Union studying art in the Louvre and Hilary is doing a masters in French in Paris.

I arrived Friday night and took the metro into the city. My flight was late so I was worried about meeting up with Megan. I had called some of my friends in Madrid to send an email to her letting her know that I would be late because she did not have a cell phone with her in Paris. As I boarded my flight, I hoped that Megan would check her email before going to meet me. While on the metro into Paris, I realized that I had forgotten to write down the name of the café I was supposed to meet Megan at instead I had just printed out a local map showing the neighborhood I was supposed to meet her in. Luckily, when I got out of the metro (which has about 10 different exits) I went to the correct exit and found the café I was supposed to meet Megan at. This was definitely peer luck that she checked her email before going to meet me and that I figured out where to go after leaving the metro station. This experience left me feeling quite lucky and gave me a better appreciation of how difficult it was to coordinate meetings before everyone had cell phones.

On Saturday, Megan and I went to the Arc de Triumph and then walked along the Champs Elysees where there was a Christmas market.

By this time, it was pouring outside but Megan and I decided to take our time and look at the booths. Some of the stalls were really commercial with stuff that could have been sold in a department store and other booths had homemade goods that reminded me of art and wine festivals. I was able to find a couple of presents there.

Along the way, Megan and I had crepes from a street vendor. I didn’t realize that crepes were equivalent to a New York hot dog or pretzel stand. They are sold on many major streets and they are wrapped so you can walk and eat. My first Persian crepe (nutella and bananna) was delicious but a little too rich.

After walking for two hours, we ended up at the Louvre and Megan showed me around. It was so nice to not have to look at a map and to have someone to show me the important pieces in the museum. We spent about three hours there until the museum closed.

Picture of me by the Mona Lisa

During the night, we went to the Eiffel Tower and saw it all lit up. Currently, it is lit in a blue light with yellow stars at the base to honor Sarkozy as the EU president. I enjoyed seeing the monument up close and from various angles.

On Sunday, Megan and I went to Notre Dame and walked around Paris. We got more crepes and spent time in a cute café catching up. It was so nice to see a familiar face. I have decided that most of my travel will probably be dictated by where I have friends instead by the locations because no matter what happens on your trip it is always better if you are with good friends.

Sunday night I met up with Hilary. We went out to a delicious dinner. Once again, it was nice to have a local to show me around and take me to an authentic restaurant instead of a tourist trap. As a rule, I try not to go to places with English menus. I figure I will get cheaper and better quality food at these restaurants and it will always be an adventure deciding what to eat.

On Monday, I went to the Holocaust memorial museum. One interesting thing about the museum is that it is technically the Shoah Museum. In France they don’t use the word holocaust and it was unclear whether there was no direct translation or whether this was an attempt to mask the truth such as the Clinton administration calling the Rwandan genocide ´´ethnic cleansing¨ instead of genocide. Either way, the museum was really well done. One part of the museum chronicled the Holocaust in France and the collaboration of the Vichy government while another part of the museum covered the Holocaust in Europe and the Nazi participation. The memorial to the children who died in the Holocaust was very moving and well done.

Children's Memorial at Holocaust Museum

After the museum, I had lunch with Hilary. Luckily she was with me because the metro line I needed to take to the airport was on strike but she was able to take me to a shuttle bus pick up location. Otherwise, I would have been completely confused on how to get to the airport.

Overall, I had a great weekend in Paris. I definitely would like to go back at some time and spend more time getting to know the different neighborhoods. On Saturday, I am off to India for two weeks. I hope everyone has a great holiday season!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Spanish Education System

I have spent over three months working in the Spanish schools. Some of the things that I have encountered have really impressed me while other things drive me crazy. Most of the teachers at my school and the Spanish educational system seem to value rote memorization over creativity and critical thinking. The students in my history and geography class had to memorize all the major oceans, seas, rivers, and mountains in the world, yet they lack the skills to write a persuasive essay nor do they know how to look up information in a library or on the internet.

One thing that I really like about the Spanish educational system is tutorial system which is similar to having homeroom. Each class of about 25-30 students is assigned to one teacher who is their tutor and the whole class meets once a week for one period to take care of official business, make announcements, and answer questions. In addition to this time, the tutor is responsible for monitoring all the kids in his/her class and if the parent has any questions they call the tutor. This means the parents have one point person to contact if there are any problems. Parents come in about once a month to meet with the tutor and discuss how the student is doing in all of their classes. The tutor is responsible for talking with all the teachers that the student has before meeting with the parents so that they can discuss the overall performance of the student. I think this a great idea because many students in the United States slip through the crack and there is often little communication between teachers regarding an individual student. This way, if there is a major change of behavior the tutor will probably know about it because they have to be in constant communication with all of the teachers that a particular student has.

One thing that is different from the United States is that the teachers move from class to class instead of having the students switch classes. This has both positive and negatives associated with it. First the students don’t have the opportunity to leave the classroom in between periods so sometimes I think they get restless from sitting all day. Second this means each class (25-30 students) stays together all day instead of switching classes and being with different students every period. As a result, the students feel comfortable around each other but they often adopt class personalities such as the class clown and the nerd which can be hard to change.

One thing that drives me crazy is that most of the teachers do not write the homework on the board or pass out a handout explaining the homework. I have been in many classes where it is unclear to me what the students are supposed to do so I can only imagine how the students feel especially considering they are listening to directions in a foreign language. Furthermore, great emphasis is placed on taking neat notes and having everything in the correct format with little attention paid to the content. Sometimes it takes my students five minutes to get out a piece of paper and title it because they all use rulers to underline the heading and they are obsessed with making everything pretty. However, this is due to the fact that the teachers value work that is neat rather than the ideas expressed by the students. For example, I have had multiple teachers show me students’ exams and comment that there is no way the student could have done well on the exam because the hand writing is too messy. This frustrates me because I know that many of the students have good ideas but have messy handwriting.

The students at my school just finished their first trimester (it made me think of Union except they don’t get a six week long break). The students are enrolled in 10 classes but they don’t have every class everyday. Some classes like English are five times a week while history and biology are three times a week and some such as citizenship are only once a week. Most of my students failed at least one class and some failed up to as many as 8. Grades are out of ten with five considered passing. I understand there is a different grading policy but what bothers me is that the teachers don’t care that their students failed. No attempt at extra help or attention is given. Rather the teachers write the students off as lazy or unintelligent and do not bother to try to help the students learn the material. Multiple teachers have commented to me that certain students are disasters and that there is no point trying to help them. This goes against everything I believe in. I think everyone can learn and you just need to figure out how to capture their attention and motivate them.

Overall, while I may not incorporate a lot of the methods the teachers in Spain use, I am learning a lot about education and how to be an effective teacher. Hopefully, I will be able to take what I have learned and apply it when I return next year and have a class of my own.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Thanksgiving Part 2

My Thanksgiving dinner was a success. On Thursday, my roommates and I had to work so we did not start cooking until about 3 pm. After picking up our turkey, Liz and I quickly realized our turkey had feathers! Unsure what to do, we looked online but found little advice as this is not a normal occurrence, so we spent the next twenty minutes plucking feathers off of our turkey. I found this quite gross and I don’t like thinking about the meat I eat in animal form.

Some of the feathers from our turkey

One successful pie and one not so successful one

At 3 pm we realized our turkey barely fit into our roasting pan so I went out to see if I could buy a disposable pan. The problem I encountered was siesta. The stores that sold disposable roasting pans were closed which I found ironic because in the states everyone tries to avoid going to the grocery store on thanksgiving to avoid the last minute rush while I couldn’t find a store that was open. After stuffing our turkey, we placed it in the oven at about 4 pm with the oven on number 3. Thirty minutes into cooking our turkey we realized the skin was getting dark too quickly so we tinfoiled the entire turkey. We cooked our turkey on number 3 most of the day and by about 7 pm the meat thermometer said our turkey done.

our beautiful turkey

The rest of the afternoon was spent cleaning the apartment, laying out the furniture, and mentally preparing for hosting so many people. I ended up carving the turkey which if anyone knows my dad’s turkey carving skills and my mom’s culinary abilities would find this hilarious. I think I did a pretty good job although I had to keep the pieces pretty small so that as many people as possible could have a taste.

People starting arriving around 8:30 and kept coming until close 10. When they arrived, we took their dish, heated it up if necessary, had them a plate and told them to start eating. The food was set up as a buffet and after people got their food they could sit down and eat. As more people came, those who had already eaten would get up and mingle with others so that the newcomers could sit down and eat. We had so much food! Everyone’s dishes were amazing and it was so nice to be surrounded by such great company. At around 11 pm we went around and said what we were thankful for. Everyone gave great answers including skype, the small things in life, Uncle Fulbright, our students, and having found a great group of friends. At this point, I counted there were 35 people in our apartment but somehow it all worked out.

the buffet spread

everyone crammed into our apartment

This was definitely one of my most memorable Thanksgivings. I feel so lucky to be in Spain this year, to have made amazing friends in Spain, and to have great family and friends back in the United States.